Tuesday, May 18, 2021

"Midnight Cowboy”: Some Sweetness Amid the Rot of the Big Apple

Once upon a time, Glenn Frankel was a foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, winning a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Middle East. Then, seeking out a slightly quieter life, he began writing books about Hollywood classics. It’s easy to see that he was a fan of movie westerns in his youth. His first Hollywood book, The Searchers: The Making of a Hollywood Legend, explored in depth the John Ford drama that was perhaps John Wayne’s finest hour. He followed up with High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic. His latest take on celluloid cowboys is a wee bit different. This year he has brought forth Shooting Midnight Cowboy: Art,Sex, Loneliness, Liberation, and the Making of a Dark Classic. In this Oscar-winning 1969 drama, the “cowboy” is something of a phony, and he soon leaves his home on the range for a scruffy life on the mean streets of New York City. That’s where he plans to earn his keep as a male hustler, servicing sex-starved big city housewives. Except that things don’t exactly go as planned.

 Frankel’s intensive research unearths the contradictions that went into the making of this landmark film. At its core – working against the sleaziness of urban life in the late Sixties – is the unlikely friendship of Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo. Joe, played by apple-cheeked newcomer Jon Voigt, is naïve and unlucky, proud of his sexual prowess but repeatedly victimized by savvy New Yorkers of all persuasions. Ratso (Dustin Hoffman, coming off a very different role in The Graduate), is a down-and-out street bum from the Bronx. In a film wherein sex has nothing to do with love, the two discover a non-physical bond that is fragile but real. Emphatically, this is not intended as a film about a gay relationship. But the author of the novel on which the film is based, James Leo Herlihy, was a young closeted male. And its director, John Schlesinger, was a Londoner who played down his own homosexuality while beginning to make his mark as one of the rising British neo-realist directors of the era, along with Tony Richardson, Lindsay Anderson, and Karel Reisz.

 Frankel devotes time and care to the place of this film within the annals of gay cinema. He decodes Joe Buck’s prized cowboy get-up, explaining why his John-Wayne-style hyper-masculinity proves so irresistible to the sad gay men he unwittingly attracts. He also delves into gay viewers’ response to Midnight Cowboy, comparing it tellingly to Schlesinger’s next film, Sunday, Bloody Sunday, which deals forthrightly with a bisexual man in the center of a love triangle that shows characters of both genders aching for love.

 But Frankel is also terrific at dredging up production stories.. He explodes the legend that the car that almost hits Ratso on a busy New York street (leading to Hoffman’s “I’m walking here!” ad lib) was pure serendipity. And he explains the film’s famous X-rating as having been imposed not by a prudish MPAA ratings board but by the studio, United Artists, that made it. Who knew?

 Midnight Cowboy -- convincingly acted, beautifully shot—is an easy film to admire. But perhaps it’s less easy to love. I’ve heard someone say, after watching, “It made me feel unclean.” A similar reaction came from Mike Nichols, shocked to learn his protégé Dustin Hoffman coveted the Ratso role. Nichols allegedly griped, “I made you a star, and you’re going to throw it all away? You’re a leading man and now you’re going to play this? The Graduate was so clean, and this is so dirty.”


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